We warned you.
Back in July, we told you the Boston Celtics should be worried about that Memphis Grizzlies draft pick. And, at this point in the 2019-20 NBA season, those fears appear justified.
What once was a confusing situation now is much more clear: If the Grizzlies land outside the top six in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Celtics will receive the pick. If Memphis finds itself in the top six, the pick will convey to next year, when it will be unprotected. So, there remains a possibility the Celtics land the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
A couple of years ago, that scenario appeared at least somewhat realistic, and thus the Grizzlies pick was viewed as one of the best assets in the NBA. Memphis finished 22-60 in the 2017-18 campaign, and wound up with the No. 4 pick in the ensuing draft. With an aging core and minimal ability to attract star free agents, the Grizzlies seemed destined for an ugly, lengthy rebuild.
But, much like what Celtics fans witnessed with the Sacramento Kings, the Grizzlies have drafted well, traded well and — most importantly — played well. They might not be a playoff team, but they absolutely are ahead of schedule with their rebuild.
Memphis earned 11 more wins in 2018-19, and have continued that upward trend this season. Behind star rookie Ja Morant and impressive sophomore Jaren Jackson (the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft), the Grizzlies are 15-22, good for ninth in the Western Conference. If the season ended today, the Grizzlies would have the 14th worst record in the NBA, with the pick most likely to land at the end of the draft lottery.
For Ainge, this probably feels like Déjà Vu.
Thanks to the trade that netted them Jayson Tatum in the 2017 draft (and some other conditional stuff we won’t bore you with), the Celtics owned the rights to the Kings’ first-rounder last June. That pick initially appeared destined for the top five, but eventually resulted in Boston selecting Romeo Langford at No. 14. Obviously, the jury still is out on Langford, but the outcome nevertheless was disappointing.
So, how should fans feel about this? There are two options.
The first is that the Grizzlies and Kings picks both should be viewed as gravy. Boston traded the No. 1 pick in 2017 for the No. 3 pick (Tatum) and what wound up being the Kings pick. Tatum was the real prize, and the Kings pick was a potentially tantalizing bonus. As for the Grizzlies pick, it’s a product of the 2015 trade that sent Jeff Green to Memphis. So, the fact it ever became relevant probably should be considered a victory for the Celtics.
However, it’s hard to not wonder whether Ainge missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on the assets when their values peaked. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but it’s probably fair to say there have been times when trading either pick would have brought back something (or someone) better than Langford and whomever eventually is chosen with the Grizzlies pick. Sure, the Celtics still could move the pick in a trade this season (frontcourt help, anyone?) but there’s no denying the asset carries less value today than it did a year ago.
All that being said, nobody should weep for the Celtics. They have distanced themselves from the Kyrie Irving saga and reclaimed their position as one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams. Kemba Walker has much to do with that, but the true difference-makers have been Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two potential franchise cornerstones produced by the 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets. (Can you believe people once viewed that deal as a loss for the Celtics?)
There still is time for this to be a happy ending for Boston. It’s not like the Grizzlies are that good or anything, and you can find great players at the bottom of the draft lottery. Plus, we wouldn’t put it past Ainge to package the Grizzlies pick in yet another lopsided trade for the Celtics.
Still, at this juncture, the once-prized pick is on track to disappoint the Celtics and their fans.